Corporate Social Responsibility

G4 Sustainability Reporting: Why it’s great and how communication can help

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g4

First, let me admit that I’m somewhat new to the nuts and bolts of sustainability reporting. I have been researching sustainability communication and CSR reporting, but last summer I spent a couple of days at Edelman in Chicago at training for GRI reporting using the G4 guidelines. At first, I worried that the training would be too dense, and I might not find much value in it. But, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the information was extremely interesting and relevant for communication research.

Here’s what I love about sustainability reporting with G4. It truly is a way to help corporations manage processes toward a sustainable economy. Unlike earlier iterations of the GRI report, G4 strips out all the fluff and really forces companies to focus on the most critical aspects of sustainability that will bring needed change.

Here are some great examples:
1. Outputs are divided into three categories – economic, environment, and social – and that means companies need to report in all areas. And, that provides great stories for companies to tell.

2. More is not better. Report quality is not judged on quantity of information, so companies are encouraged to be concise but thorough. Enter communication experts who do this for a living. Providing transparent and useful information (in a concise form) is an excellent way to build credibility and communicate effectively.

3. Each item needs to be measured using an approved method of collection. And, results need to be contextualized. As our trainer said, companies need to explain if their improvements are due to a “happy accident” or to management processes that lead to planned improvement. And, on the flip side, missing a goal should be contextualized because sometimes unexpected circumstances cause companies to miss their objectives, but the cause is reasonable. This is an ethical approach to reporting and builds credibility with audiences.

4. Awards are no longer a required disclosure. That means that companies do not need to disclose them (but they are free to do it). Why? Because, bottom line, awards to do not contribute to making a company more sustainable. The criteria for some awards is not known, so it’s hard to decide if the award is an indication of an important contribution. So, the decision was made not to require them. This decision makes an interesting statement about value of awards and how some may not be rigorous and really have important meaning.

5. Ethics & Integrity disclosures are required (the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication is thrilled).

6. Stakeholder engagement is new to G4 – this means more communication and more promotion. This is my favorite change because it brings sustainability reporting squarely into the communication arena, and opens up a fascinating opportunity to study stakeholder engagement in sustainability.

7. And, here is the most courageous change  – in order for a company to be “in accordance” at the comprehensive level (which is the most thorough level), it must disclose the salary of its highest paid employee in a country and how that compares to the average salary in the company in that country (not including the highest paid employee). One of the goals of GRI is to fight poverty, and frankly, this is one of the most practical ways to identify income inequity.

My final takeaway is that companies that adhere to the G4 standards, and specifically those who reach the comprehensive level of certification, will have an amazing story to tell and will contribute to their reputation in a meaningful way.

Telling a company’s sustainability story

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I just read a great article on Triple Pundit about using narratives to tell a company’s sustainability story. Nicole Skibola from Centurion Consulting offers some excellent suggestions, but my favorite is to think about your audiences as actual people, not as categories. Don’t try to craft communication for “customers” or “law-makers” but rather think of specific individuals whom you are trying to reach. That will help you create a more interesting and compelling narrative for your audiences. Yes, it’s a lesson from communication 101, but sometimes we get lost when communicating about complex subjects, like sustainability. It’s good to remember that at the other end of the message is the receiver, a real person.

Read the full article here to learn about the three step process to developing an effective narrative for sustainability:

http://www.triplepundit.com/2014/09/tell-companys-sustainability-story/

Bortree named Director of Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication

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I’m a bit late with this announcement, but here it is. From the News site at Penn State University:

Denise Sevick Bortree, whose research focuses on corporate social responsibility and sustainability communication, has been selected as director of the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication at Penn State.

Her appointment is effective Aug. 1, 2014. She succeeds Marie Hardin, recently named as dean of the College of Communications at Penn State. Hardin will retain her position as chair of the Page Center’s advisory board.

“As a senior research fellow with the Page Center, Dr. Bortree brings to her new position a deep involvement with and understanding of its research mission,” said Hardin. “A first-rate scholar, Dr. Bortree is well-positioned to lead the Page Center, which has become a leading research unit focusing on ethics in public communication.”

Founded in 2004, the Page Center is dedicated to the study and development of ethics and responsibility in corporate communication and other forms of public communication. The center has awarded grants totaling more than half a million dollars to researchers from all over the world. Some of the topics they have addressed include corporate social responsibility, environmental communication, company codes of ethics, the principles of PR professionals, apologies by business firms, and ethical issues in journalism, crisis communications and social media.

Bortree is well known for her scholarship on corporate social responsibility, nonprofit organization communications, social media and sustainability issues. She has co-edited two books: “Ethical Practice of Social Media in Public Relations” (2014) and “Talking Green, Exploring Contemporary Issues in Environmental Communications” (2012). She has authored more than 25 peer-reviewed journal articles.

In 2010, she earned the Deans’ Excellence Award for Research and Creative Accomplishments from the College of Communications. In 2013, she was selected to participate in the Scripps-Howard Leadership Academy. She is the incoming chair of the Public Relations Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), a leading international organization.

An associate professor in the Department of Advertising/Public Relations at Penn State, Bortree brought to academe more than 10 years of practical experience, including positions as a communications manager, public relations manager and marketing manager for a number of organizations. She earned two master’s degrees, in mass communications and educational psychology, from the University of Florida, and her doctorate from Florida in mass communications. Her undergraduate degree is from Geneva College.

Bortree is enthusiastic about her new leadership position.

“I am honored to be taking on this role at the Page Center,” she said. “Over the past decade, the center has distinguished itself as a leader in professionally focused research on ethics in public communication, and I look forward to continuing to build its engagement with communications professionals and academics.”

The Arthur W. Page Center was created 10 years ago by three senior executives: Edward M. Block, retired senior vice president for AT&T; the late Lawrence G. Foster, retired corporate vice president for Johnson & Johnson; and the late John A. Koten, retired senior vice president for Ameritech. Foster made a significant leadership gift to establish the Page Center and served for years as chair of its advisory board before his death in 2013. The Johnson family foundations and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation also have given substantial support. Other contributions have come from former colleagues of Robert Wood Johnson and from the AT&T Foundation on behalf of Arthur W. Page.

The center is named for the man who is considered the world’s pioneer in corporate public relations. Arthur W. Page joined AT&T as a vice president in 1924 and became widely known for setting high standards for ethical communication. The legacy of Robert Wood Johnson also is a vital part of the Page Center. Like Page, Johnson was a strong and visible advocate of responsible corporate behavior.

Recipients of Page Center grants are known as Page/Johnson Legacy Scholars. In addition to research, the center features an oral history collection of prominent people from the corporate communications and journalism fields.

Sustainability and CSR research at the International Public Relations Research Conference

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One of the most popular conferences for academics in public relations is the International Public Relations Research Conference (IPRRC) which is held every March in Miami. This year I noticed a long list of studies on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability communication. That was a pleasant surprise, given the Page Center’s recent efforts to fund high-quality research in this area.

Three of the studies were funded by a Page Legacy grant. Melissa Dodd and Dustin Supa looked at corporate social advocacy, how a company’s stand on a social issue impacts consumer’s purchase intentions. They have been working on this topic for a while, and this is another nice addition to their stream of research. Georgiana Grigore and Tom Watson presented a paper on internal communication about CSR, and how skepticism plays a role in the advocacy. We were pleased to fund this project, too, because the topic of CSR skepticism needs more attention. Melanie Formentin (a grad student here at Penn State) and I wrote the third funded paper, which reported the results of a content analysis on CSR and sustainability report videos that companies have posted.

Below is a more information about the three papers.

Title: A “Corporate Social Advocacy” Approach to Gun Control, Firearms Violence: Attitudes Underlying Consumer Purchase Intention and Policy Recommendations

Authors: Melissa D. Dodd (University of Central Florida), Dustin W. Supa (Boston University)

Abstract: This research uses the theory of planned behavior to expand upon past research by the study’s authors that has attempted to identify the relationship between organizational stances on social political-issues (gay marriage, healthcare reform, and emergency contraception) and consumer purchase intentions (termed, “corporate social advocacy”). The current research seeks to further this agenda by the social-political issue of gun control.

Title: Employees as CSR advocates: The role of skepticism

Authors: Georgiana Grigore, Anastasios Theofilou, Tom Watson (Bournemouth University, UK)

Abstract: This research offers a framework to public relations and corporate communications practitioners, which enhances the understanding of the use and value of internal CSR communication strategies and practices.

Title: Stakeholder Engagement on YouTube: Corporate Use of Video to Introduce and Explain CSR and Sustainability Reports

Authors: Denise Bortree and Melanie Formentin (Penn State University)

I would like to share a few other notable papers that I believe make an important contribution to the field of CSR and sustainability communication. One interesting paper covered the overlap between CSR and public relations. An important contribution of this paper is how CSR has been integrated into business strategy and goals.

Title: Untangling the Relationship Between Public Relations and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR): A Best Practices Perspective of PR Goals and the Use of CSR Initiatives

Author: Holley Reeves (University of Georgia)

Abstract: Eleven in-depth interviews explore the relationship between PR goals and CSR programs. Findings indicate that CSR initiatives primarily serve the community and support long-term business goals. PR interests are secondary.

I first met with the author of another paper, Matthew VanDyke, a few years ago, and I knew he would make an important contribution to our knowledge of environmental communication. His paper at the conference, with fellow grad student Zijian Gong, proposed an interesting study to test perceptions of green messages during crisis.

Title: Does Green Strategic Communication Help During Environmental Crises?: The Influence of Personal Involvement and Crisis History on Company Evaluations

Authors: Matthew S. VanDyke, Zijian Gong (Texas Tech University)

Abstract: This experiment tested the influence of a company’s environmental crisis history and individuals’ level of crisis involvement on perceptions of a company’s pro-environmental messages. Participants evaluated messages using continuous response and self-report measures. Results inform theory and practice of the roles crisis history and personal involvement play in subsequent evaluations.

Two studies at the conference confirmed what public relations professionals have long known. CSR communication has an impact on media coverage, but certain types of CSR initiatives are more likely to garner coverage. Using the agenda setting framework, both studies had somewhat similar findings.

Title: Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Communication: Intermedia Agenda Setting Effects between News Releases and Press Coverage

Author: Laishan Tam (Purdue University)

Abstract: Based on intermedia agenda setting theory, this study examines the extent to which CSR-related news releases published by electricity providers in Hong Kong influences press coverage about CSR. News releases on CSR topics which are more relevant to the core operations of the corporation and have higher impact on society are found to be more likely to be reported in the press.

Title: Agenda-building in corporate social responsibility: Analyzing influence in corporate crisis

Authors: Young Eun Park, Sung-Un Yang (Indiana University)

Abstract: Following agenda-building theory, content analysis of CSR news releases and CSR media coverage involving two time frames (before vs. after crisis) will be conducted. This study demonstrates (1) positive associations between salience of issues in CSR information subsidies and media coverage and (2) influences of information subsidies on media coverage.

Research on social media seems to dominate at IPRRC, with many academics and professionals searching for better ways to quantify the impact of social media engagement. One study of Twitter posts looked specifically at CSR communication.

Title: CSR dialogue on social media platforms: An analysis of CSR tweets

Authors: Lina M. Gomez (Universidad del Este, Puerto Rico), Lucely Vargas-Preciado (Johaness Kepler University of Linz, Austria), Ramiro Cea-Moure (Universidad de Burgos, Spain), Ismail Adelopo (University of the West of England, UK)

Abstract: This paper aims to discover who the most important “CSR actors” are and what they are discussing about CSR on twitter. Our research conducted a content analysis of 1623 public tweets from different twitter users. Cross collaboration between actors is needed in order to enrich the practice of CSR communication.

At the awards ceremony on the last day of the conference, Executive Director of the conference, Don Stacks asked members of the audience to raise a hand if they had travelled internationally for the conference. About a third of the room indicated that they had. And, the impact of international researchers is evident in the conference schedule this year. Here are three examples of good projects that look at CSR in an international context.

Title: Green Social Movements and Government Public Relations Efforts in Turkey

Authors: Gülşah Aydın, Duygu Aydın Aslaner (Yeditepe University, Turkey)

Abstract: This study discusses Green Social Movements in Turkey and PR efforts developed by the government. It is scrutinized in the scope of media relations, reputation and crisis management.

Title: Corporate Social Responsibility: Perceptions and practices among SMEs in Colombia

Authors: Nathaly Aya Pastrana (Adinas Group S.A.S, Columbia), Krishnamurthy Sriramesh (Purdue University)

Abstract: This study sought to understand the perceptions and practices of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) among a sample of Colombian SMEs. The data were collected using a self-administered online questionnaire (54 corporations), and from interviews with five opinion leaders and two representatives of SMEs permitted to assess the activities, motivations, stakeholders, decision-making processes, communication processes, resource allocation, evaluation, and the benefits of CSR among Colombian SMEs. Additionally, the study presents a brief analysis linking the findings to the specific socio-cultural context of the country.

Title: Corporate Responsibility in Post-Communist Eastern Europe

Author: Sorin Nastasia (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville)

Abstract: This paper discusses corporate responsibility in Eastern Europe, taking a critical public relations approach to examining cases from Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Data was collected through archival research. The study discusses the opportunities and challenges for corporations to position themselves as accountable and responsible social actors in Eastern Europe.

In addition to international context, the studies of CSR and sustainability looked at environmental issues that hit close to home, affecting the quality of life in local communities. Here are two examples.

Title: Strategic Ambiguity in Crisis: Fracking Information Designed to Educate or Deceive?

Authors: Kristi S. Gilmore, Sun Young Lee (Texas Tech University)

Abstract: This textual analysis of company websites examines the use of strategic ambiguity in the crisis communication efforts surrounding one of the petroleum industry’s most recent controversial activities: hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”

Title: Improving Grease Disposal among Latino Populations in North Carolina: A Public Relations Case Study

Authors: Alan R. Freitag, Robin Rothberg, Sayde Brais (University of North Carolina at Charlotte)

Abstract: This project aimed at addressing the problem of improper disposal of fats, oils and grease (FOG) by population segments in North Carolina. This project aims to gauge levels of issue awareness among the target populations, identify constraints preventing desirable behavioral changes, then craft and implement a strategic communication plan to encourage proper FOG disposal.

And, I will wrap up this blog post on a topic particularly close to my heart, nonprofit communication. Christine Willingham at Florida State University took a look at the controversy between Susan G. Komen and Planned Parenthood and discussed the role of brand values as they match with cultural values. (Note: See my earlier blog post on this case study http://blogs.comm.psu.edu/thepagecenter/?p=325)

Title: Susan G. Komen and Planned Parenthood: The Cost of NOT Understanding the Connections Between Cultural Values and Brand Values for Nonprofit Organizations

Author: Christine Willingham (Florida State University)

Abstract: The SGK—Planned Parenthood case demonstrates the necessity for organizations to understand the connections between cultural values and their brand values. Further, it is important for public relations practitioners to understand how stakeholders are conceptualizing the brand; particularly a nonprofit brand that encompasses a vision of an idealistic future.

The strong presence of CSR and Sustainability research at the conference indicates to me that the public relations field sees increasing value in knowledge about effective communication strategies in this area. The Page Center is about to launch a new Sustainability Communication Initiative to fund professionally-focused research in this area and offer useful research-based insights for practice. More information to come on this new initiative.